More than half of England’s army veterans have experienced mental or physical health issues since returning to civilian life, and some are reluctant to share their experiences, a survey has revealed.

The survey of 4,910 veterans, commissioned jointly by the Royal College of GPs (RCGP) and the Office for Veterans’ Affairs (OVA), found that 55% have experienced a health issue potentially related to their service since leaving the armed forces. Over 80% of respondents said their condition had got worse since returning to civilian life.

One in seven of those surveyed said they had not sought help from a healthcare professional. A preference for managing issues alone and the belief that their experience would not be understood by a civilian health professional were the most common reasons given.

This fear of being misunderstood is demonstrated by the finding that 63% of veterans said they would be more likely to seek help if they knew their GP practice was signed up to the Veteran Friendly Accreditation scheme.

More than 3,000 of England’s 6,313 GP practices are accredited, but the survey’s findings have prompted the RCGP – with NHS England and the OVA – to launch an initiative to get more GP practices on to the scheme.

Practices that sign up will be provided with a “simple process” for identifying, understanding and supporting veterans and, where appropriate, referring them to dedicated veterans’ physical and mental health and wellbeing services.

Johnny Mercer, the minister for veterans’ affairs, is urging GP practices to become accredited as veteran friendly. Photograph: Thomas Krych/ZUMA Press Wire/REX/Shutterstock

One army veteran – Jon Lynn, a patient at Orchard Surgery in Bromborough, Wirral, said: “After I left the military, I really struggled with both my mental and physical health and was at my lowest ebb when I eventually decided to seek help from my GP practice and share my service experiences.

“They immediately understood my needs and issues and were able to quickly refer me to the specialist health services that exist for veterans.”

This led to Lynn being diagnosed with PTSD and getting access to the support he needed. “I firmly believe that having access to a veteran friendly accredited GP practice and sharing my status as a veteran saved my life as well as my marriage.”

Practices that become accredited could prove crucial for the many veterans who were “silently struggling with health issues”, he added.

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Johnny Mercer, the minister for veterans’ affairs, said world-class healthcarewas key to making the UK “the best country in the world to be a veteran”.

Urging practices to become accredited, he said: “This quick and simple step will help encourage more veterans to contact their GP and say they served. Doing so will help to ensure that they receive the care that’s right for them, which includes access to veteran-specific NHS health services, such as Op Courage.”

Op Courage is a specialist service designed to help those due to leave the armed forces, staffed by professionals who are from, or have experience of working with, the armed forces community.

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